There was never much doubt that Pep Guardiola would be named Premier League manager of the season after Manchester City’s record-breaking title triumph last year, but Roy Hodgson had a strong case to be considered the best of the rest.
Under his stewardship, Palace became the first top-flight team in over a century to avoid relegation despite losing their first seven matches of the season. Remarkably, Hodgson’s side ended up 11 points clear of the drop zone and only one point outside the top half.
Palace offer support to Zaha
Palace finished the campaign with a run of five wins, two draws and only one defeat from their final eight games, but carrying that momentum into the new season has proved difficult.
Palace sit just three points clear of the relegation zone in 14th and exited the Carabao Cup on Wednesday night as their second string suffered a disappointing 1-0 loss to Middlesbrough. The mood around the club is low but could Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Arsenal serve as a turning point in the Premier League? We examine their prospects ahead of their Super Sunday clash with Chelsea.
Signs of encouragement?
Palace went into the meeting with Arsenal on a run of three straight defeats against Everton, Wolves and Bournemouth, but there were encouraging signs against Unai Emery’s side. Hodgson praised his side’s “tremendous” spirit to come back from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s controversial goal, insisting their performance merited more than a point.
Palace have struggled for goals this season – scoring just seven in 10 games so far – but while both of their strikes against Arsenal came from Luka Milivojevic penalties, they did succeed in causing Arsenal problems from open play. Overall, they had 16 shots on goal – their second-highest total in any game this season.
It was more than twice as many as Arsenal, too. There was little they could do about Granit Xhaka’s brilliant equaliser and they were unfortunate that Aubameyang’s goal was not ruled out for handball, but otherwise they succeeded in limiting the visitors’ chances.
It was not the first time that they have managed that this season. Palace may sit 14th in the table but only seven clubs have conceded fewer goals than them – among them Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham. Only six clubs have faced fewer shots on target.
The numbers point to a level of defensive solidity which should serve them well in the weeks and months ahead, and it is partly down to the emergence of academy product Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who has shone at right-back. So far this season, he ranks second in the Premier League for tackles (41) and sixth for interceptions (23).
Palace’s biggest problems lie at the other end, where their dependency on Wilfried Zaha remains a big issue. The Ivorian has been back in the headlines this week after he was accused of diving to win Palace’s second penalty against Arsenal, but the incident was just another example of how important he is to Hodgson’s side.
The second penalty against Arsenal was the fifth Palace goal out of seven this season which has been either scored or set up by Zaha. Over the last three seasons, no Palace player has contributed more goals or assists.
Zaha is a major weapon for Palace and tying him to a new contract was undoubtedly a huge boost to the club this summer, but the concern is that they often look devoid of goal threat when he does not play. Wednesday’s cup tie with Middlesbrough was just the latest example. In the Premier League, Palace have lost every one of the 11 games he has missed since the start of last season.
Zaha’s fellow Palace forwards have not done enough. Christian Benteke is currently sidelined by a knee injury, but his form deteriorated alarmingly before that. Since the start of last season, he has only scored three Premier League goals in 37 appearances.
Chelsea vs C Palace
November 4, 2018, 3:30pm
The others have fared no better. Alexander Sorloth is yet to score a Premier League goal following his £9m arrival from Danish side FC Midtjylland in January, while Jordan Ayew finds himself in the same position since joining Palace on loan from Swansea in the summer. Connor Wickham, meanwhile, has only recently returned from a lengthy spell out.
Zaha or no Zaha, Palace’s scoring struggles are sure to continue if the supporting cast don’t start chipping in soon.
Palace will take heart from their 2-2 draw with Arsenal, but their upcoming fixture list does not get any easier. They travel to Stamford Bridge to face unbeaten Chelsea on Super Sunday, then welcome Tottenham to Selhurst Park a week later. Hodgson’s side then return to Premier League action against Manchester United at Old Trafford after the international break.
Crystal Palace’s next four Premier League games
Can they use the Arsenal game as a turning point? A look back at last season’s results does not inspire too much confidence. Palace’s survival was built on impressive results against the teams in and around them in the table, but they only one won out of 12 meetings with the big six.
It’s down to Hodgson to buck the trend. The challenge continues at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, but there is already plenty for the Palace boss to ponder.
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